Telling the holy

Woodland gate

I keep returning to "Telling the Holy," Scott Russell Sanders' fine essay on myths and sacred stories from around the world. Each time I read it I find new things to ponder, and today it's this:

"Mystery is not much in favor these days. The notion that there are limits to what we can do, what we can know, limits to our dominion, does not sit well with kings and queens of the hill. Humility and reverence, we hear, are the attitudes of cowards. Why worship a force we can't measure on a meter? Why tell stories about a power we can't photograph? 

"Flannery O'Connor once revealed to a correspondent that her 'gravest concern' was 'the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of the times.' I feel that attraction for the holy, and my throat, too, burns with the air of disbelief.

The windy road

"When the novelist Reynolds Price published his translation of stories from the Bible in a book called A Palpable God, he prefaced it with a long meditation on 'Origins and Life of Narrative,' in which he sought to explain why a cultivated person in our secular age might still take seriously these tales of the holy. The 'first -- and final -- aim of narrative,' he argued, is 'compulsion of belief in an ordered world.'

"Of course it would be reassuring to believe in an ordered world, say the sceptics. But what if the universe is chaotic, a hazard of bits and pieces, and our tales of order are but soothing lullabies we sing against the darkness?

Into the greenwood

"That line of reasoning leads to what I think of as the killjoy of sacred stories: they must be false because they are comforting. They are not, in fact, all comforting. Many are frightening. In myths, gods appear and disappear, play tricks, throw tantrums, devour the innocent and reward the wicked, bewilder the most patient seeker. The holy is often a holy terror. Still, the killjoy critique is forceful, as Reynolds Price acknowledged: 'Human narrative, through all its visible length, gives emphatic signs of arising from the profoundest need of one fragile species. Sacred story is the perfect answer given to the world to the hunger of the species for true consolation.'

"Mustn't so perfect an answer be an illusion? Not necessarily, Price added, 'for the fact that we hunger has not precluded food.' Water is nonetheless real for slaking our thirst, lovemaking nonetheless real for meeting our desire. I do not doubt the sun, even though it warms me and lights my way. Yes, tales about the holy may satisfy our craving for consolation, but that proves nothing about the truth of the tales or the reality of the power.

By the leat

Wild daffodils

"The order we glimpse through myth is one that we did not create, that we cannot alter, that we can never fully grasp, and that we ignore at our peril. The achievements of science delude many into thinking that we have graduated from nature, that we can understand everything, that we can change or scorn conditions as we see fit, that we are bosses of the universe. Among those who resist this delusion of omnipotence are a number of scientists. The physicist Charles Misner, for example, has articulated a humbler view:

"'I do see the design of the universe as essentially a religious question. That is, one should have some kind of respect and awe for the whole business, it seems to me. It's very magnificent and shouldn't be taken for granted. In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organized religion, although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what the preachers said about God and felt they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty than they had ever imagined.'

Bluebells and barbed wire

By "mystery," Sanders clarifies, 

"...I do not mean simply the blank places on our maps. I mean the divine source -- not a void, not a darkness, but an uncapturable fullness. We are sustained by processes and powers that we can neither fathom nor do without. I speak of that ground as holy because it is ultimate, it is what makes us possible, what shapes and upholds everything we see. The stories I am most interested in hearing, reading, and telling, are those that help us imagine our lives in relation to that ground."

And so am I. But for me, a certain kind of fantasy literature approaches the same ground as myth and sacred stories, albeit from a slantwise direction. Fantasy of this sort (Tolkien, Lewis, Garner, Le Guin, McKillip, Holdstock, Crowley, de Lint, Yolen, and numerous others) is all about mystery, and the magic inherent in life itself: the "processes and powers that we can neither see nor do without."

In our own myth-drenched, poetic, elvin-crafted way, we are telling the holy.

Wandering

Basket of nettles

Sanders goes on to say:

"By telling the holy, we acknowledge that life is a gift. In fact, the whole universe is a gift. From where or what, and why, we cannot know. All we do know is that it issues forth, moment by moment, eon by eon, ever fresh, astounding in its richness and beauty. None of this is to gainsay the pain, the suffering, the eventual death that awaits all created things. But we measure that pain and suffering, we mourn that death against the sheer exuberant flow of things."

I want to work from that exuberant flow; to write of strange, improbable things that contain some kernal of truth within. I want to choose the winding road through the fernie brae that leads to mystery, wonder, and "miraculous grace" (to use Tolkien's phrase).

That is the road, I whisper to Tilly, where thou and I maun gae.

Look out post

Telling the holy

The quoted passage above is from "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders, published in Wonder and Other Survival Skills, edited by H. Emerson Blake (The Orion Society, 2o12). The poem in the picture captions is from Even in Quiet Places by William Stafford (Confluence Press, 2010). All rights reserved by the authors. 


The Dark Forest

Eclipse by Jeanie Tomanek

In late January, Howard and I gave a talk here in Chagford titled The Path Through the Dark Forest, discussing how myth and mythic fiction can help us through challenging times. Little did we know how appropriate the subject would be in the months ahead....

A journey through the dark of the woods is a common motif in myths and fairy tales: some heroes set off boldly through the forest in order to reach their destiny, while others are driven into woods, fleeing worse dangers behind. The woodland road is a treacherous one, prowled by ghosts, ghouls, wicked witches, wolves and the more malign sorts of faeries....but helpers also appear on the path: wise crones, good faeries, and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguise. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward.

Such stories are symbolic of the difficult passages that we all face in life, at one point or another -- but they are not simply tales of endurance and survival. The trials our heroes encounter in their quests illustrate the process of transformation: from youth to adulthood, from victim to hero, from a wounded state to wholeness, from passivity to action. Those who emerge from the dark of the trees are not the same as when they went in. And nor are we, after a journey through hardship, loss, or calamity.

"When you enter the woods of a fairy tale, and it is night, the trees tower on either side of the path," writes Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew. "They loom large because everything in the world of fairy tales is blown out of proportion. If the owl shouts, the otherwise deathly silence magnifies its call. The tasks you are given to do (by the witch, by the stepmother, by the wise old woman) are insurmountable -- pull a single hair from the crescent moon bear's throat; separate a bowl's worth of poppy seeds from a pile of dirt. The forest seems endless. But when you do reach the daylight, triumphantly carrying the particular hair or having outwitted the wolf; when the owl is once again a shy bird and the trees only a lush canopy filtering the sun, the world is forever changed for your having seen it otherwise."

The Return by Jeanie Tomanek

At the time we gave our Chagford talk, my own life's path seemed calm and bright...but then the road turned a bend and dipped, plunging into the dark trees. I spent a few weeks in thorny undergrowth while coping with serious health issues...and just as the landscape cleared again, I learned that my youngest brother had died, in a way that was sudden, shocking and desperately sad. Now I was truly in the Dark Forest: weighted by grief, overwhelmed by the numerous tasks that the death of a family member requires...but aided by helpers along the way, in the best of fairy tale fashions. As those heartbreaking tasks finally came to an end, I thought I'd reached the edge of the woods at last...only to find the trees stretching on and on as Coronavirus spread across Europe.

Then the whole of Britain went into lock-down, the Dark Forest encompassing us all.

Sometimes in the Forest by Jeanie Tomanek

Meanwhile, Howard was meant to be in Berlin as part of his year-long Journey Into the Heart of the Fool; his bags were packed and he was just about to leave when the news from Italy and Spain gave us second thoughts. After much debate, he cancelled the trip -- and soon that cautious decision was justified as flights were grounded, and borders closed, and theaters across Europe went dark. Between his drama work, Fool training and PhD studies, Howard has been away more than he's been home this year -- but life has now ground to a screeching halt for everyone in the Performance Arts. Losing employment and income is frightening, of course (most of us working in the Arts live hand-to-mouth at the best of times), but I suspect I'm not the only "theater spouse" relieved to have my partner home right now. We'll have to find, or invent, new ways of working, but at least we'll be doing it together.

Jeanie Tomanek

As those of you who are also on lock-down know, daily life is now full of practical and emotional challenges; each day seems to bring brand new ones, and nothing has settled yet into a routine. I don't discount the gravity of those challenges (those of us with high-risk medical conditions know full well the danger we're facing), but the questions I want to focus on here on Myth & Moor are these: How do we create thoughtful and artful lives despite that danger? How do live through the hard days ahead as artists?

For me, these are not unfamiliar questions. My particular health condition affects my immune system, so I'm already used to periods of self-isolation. I'm used to putting time and thought each day into the practical business of staying alive, and of taking mortality seriously. For many of us with a range of illnesses to manage, this is already familiar territory, so perhaps we can be of particular help now to those for whom such concerns are new. We know how to live in the shadow of death. We know how to let fear and joy co-exist inside us. We've learned to live without certainty, and without illusions of being in full control. We've learned to keep working, to keep creating, to keep showing up and to live fully in the present. Just as important, we've learned to forgive ourselves on those hard, weary, painful days when we simply can't.

Eve Does Take Out by Jeanie Tomanek

Because I'm writer and scholar of stories, it's to stories I turn when the going gets rough. It's through stories I find the tools I need: imagination, wonder, beauty, compassion for others, compassion for myself, courage, persistence, understanding, discernment...and narratives that make sense of it all.

In Wonder and Other Survival Skills, H. Emerson Blake argues for the cultivation of "wonder" especially:

"The din of modern life constantly pulls our attention away from anything that is slight, or subtle, or ephemeral," he says. "We might look briefly at a slant of light while walking through a parking lot, but then we're on to the next thing: the next appointment, the next flickering headline, the next task, the next thing that has to be done before the end of the day. But maybe it's for just that reason -- how busy we are and distracted and connected we are -- that wonder really is a survival skill. It might be the thing that reminds us of what really matters, and of the greater systems that our lives are completely dependent on. It might be be the thing that helps us build an emotional connection -- an intimacy -- with our surroundings that, in turn, would make us want to do anything we can to protect them. It might build our inner reserves, give us the strength to turn ourselves outward and meet those challenges with grace.

"In a day and age when we are reminded unendingly of the urgency and magnitude of the problems we face, wonder may seem like something we no longer have time for -- a luxury, or a dalliance. But in one of Orion's live web events, David Abram said this:

'When we trivialize people's sensory attachment to the beauty of their place, to the beauty of the land where they live...we need to at least be aware that it is undermining peoples' sense of solidarity to the rest of the earth. Sensory perception is the glue that binds our separate nervous systems into the encompassing ecosystem.'

"In other words, Abram ties our terrible, selfish decision-making about how we treat the earth -- what we take from it, what we put into it, what we demand of it -- directly to our estrangement from its beauty. He is saying that wonder is the antidote. That wonder is the thing that can save us."

Jeanie Tomanek

Myth, folklore, fantasy fiction, and mythic arts are vibrant sources of wonder, and thus good medicine for these troubled times. We must keep creating such stories, and sharing such stories, for wondrous tales are not frivolous things. When created with heart, honesty, and skill, they are fresh water and bread to sustain us.

In the days ahead, I'm going to talk about some of the books that I have carried with me through the deep dark forest, highlight art that shines light on the path, and share (as always) the magic and beauty of the land here on Dartmoor's edge. I'm also going to re-visit old posts that might have something new to tell us right now: on living slowly, on living rooted in "place," and on embracing the quieter rhythms of life that a pandemic lock-down requires.

I hope you will share your own stories here too, in the Comments section below each post. How are you doing? How are you coping? Are you still creating...and if so, how? And if not, why? (No judgements on the latter, I promise; just community and solidarity.)

"[W]hile the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new," wrote the great James Baldwin, "it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness." 

Jeanie Tomanek

Pictures: The art above, of course, is by the wonderful American painter Jeanie Tomanek. All rights reserved by the artist. Please visit her website to see more.


Wild stories for our time

Promise by Catherine Hyde

A friend of mine just finished participating in a weekend gathering of The Westcountry School of Myth, run by Dr. Martin Shaw on the other side of the Dartmoor -- reminding me of just how much I've been inspired by Martin's words and work over the years. I recommend At the Storyteller's Table, a recent video about the power and importance of Story, filmed in Martin's kitchen by Andreas Kornevall. You can watch it here. I also recommend his various books, all deeply grounded in mythic scholarship and in daily interaction with the more-than-human world. You can read passages from Scatterlings here and here; purchase his contribution to Hedgespoken's Seven Doors series here; and learn about his latest, Wolf Milk: Chthonic Memory in the Deep Wild, here.

The Westcountry School of Myth

Scatterlings by Martin Shaw

Golden Apples by Catherine Hyde

The two paintings above are by West Country artist Catherine Hyde. Photographs: students at the Westcountry School of Myth, and my copy of Scatterlings.


Trusting the gift, trusting the way

East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

From East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay Nielsen

I have to trust what was given to me
if I am to trust anything
it led the stars over the shadowless mountain
what does it remember in its night and silence
what does it not hope knowing itself no child of time

what did it not begin what will it not end
I have to hold it up in my hands
as my ribs hold up my heart
again in the mountain I have to turn
to the morning

I must be led by what was given to me
as streams are lead by it
and braiding flight of birds
the gropings of veins the learning of plants
the thankful days
breath by breath

- W.S. Merwin (from "Gift")

"If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line -- starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. East of the Sun, West of the Moon by Kay NielsenOr you could take the King's Highway past the appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been
unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led -- make of that what you will."

- Wendell Berry (Jayber Crow)

"What does it mean to stand inside darkness? What does it mean to allow yourself to travel through Hell? You don't see anything for a good long while, but then your eyes adjust and different senses take over. It is a shot through the dark. Have the courage to stay with it, to stay in it. It has its own beauty. I was raised that the goal is to be happy. I don't believe that. I think the question is not 'how do we be happy?' but 'how to we embrace change?' To me, part of that transformation takes place in the dark."

 - Terry Tempest Williams (A Voice in the Wilderness)

Pop! Out flew the moon by Kay Nielsen

The paintings above are by Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen (1886-1957). To see more of his work, and to learn more about his remarkable life, go here.

Pop! Out flew the moon.

The excerpts above are from: Writings To An Unfinished Accompaniment by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon Press, 1973); Jayber Crow: A Novel by Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 2000); and A Voice in the Wilderness: Conversations with Terry Tempest Williams by Michael Austin (Utah State University Press, 2006). The excerpts in the picture captions are from: The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (Counterpoint, 1990); Pieces of a Song by Diane di Prima (City Lights Books, 1990); Marrow of Flame by Dorothy Walters (Poetry Chaikhana Press, 2015), Study for the World’s Body by David St. John (HarperCollins, 1994); and Given Sugar, Given Salt by Jane Hirshfield (Harper, 2001). All rights reserved by the authors.


Writers and readers

Meadow 1

"The writer, functioning in a magical medium, an abstract medium, does one half of the work, but the reader does the other," Ben Okri states. "The reader's mind becomes the screen, the place, the era. To a large extent, readers create the world from words, they invent the reality they read. Reading therefore is a co-production between writer and reader. The simplicity of this tool is astounding. So little, yet out of it whole worlds, eras, characters, continents, people never encountered before, people you wouldn't care to sit next to on a train, planets that don't exist, places you've never visited, enigmatic fates, all  come to life in the mind, painted into existence by the reader's creative powers. In this way, the creativity of the write calls up the creativity of the reader. Reading is never passive."

Meadow 2

Meadow 3

Neil Gaiman, too, sees writers and readers as co-creators:

"What we, as authors, give to the reader isn't the story. We don't give them the people or the places or the emotions. What we give the reader is the raw code, a rough pattern, loose architectural plans that they use to build the book themselves. No two readers can or will ever read the same book, because the reader builds the book in collaboration with the author. I don't know if any of you have had the experience of returning to a beloved childhood book. A book that you remember a scene from so vividly, something that was etched onto the back of your eyeballs when you read it, and you remember the rain whipping down, you remember the way the trees blew in the wind, you remember the whinnies and the stamps of the horses as they fled through the forest to the castle, and the jangle of the bits, and every noise. And you go back and read the book as an adult and you discover a sentence that says something like, 'What a jolly awful night this would be,' he said as they rode their horses through the forest. 'I hope we get there soon.' And you realize you did it all. You built it. You made it."

Meadow 4

Meadow 5

Meadow 6

"All sorts of pleasant and intelligent people read my books and write thoughtful letters about them," John Cheever once commented. "I don't know who they are, but they are marvelous and seem to live quite independently of the prejudices of advertising, journalism, and the cranky academic world. The room where I work has a window looking into a wood, and I like to think that these earnest, loveable, and mysterious readers are in there."

Meadow 7

Meadow 8

Words: The quotes above are from The View From the Cheap Seats: Selected Non-fiction by Neil Gaiman (Headline, 2016); A Way of Being Free by Ben Okri (Head of Zeus, 2015); and John Cheever's page in The Writers' Desk by Jill Krementz (Random House, 1997).  The poem in the picture captions is from Halflife by Meghan O'Rourke (WW Norton & Co., 2007). All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Meadow, bog, and a few of our nonhuman neighbours, Lower Commons, Chagford.


The mystery of stories

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

"I find it so difficult to talk about how I write. There are those who are unnervingly articulate about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it....I am not particularly articulate, unnervingly or otherwise. I do believe there is, in fact, a mystery to the whole enterprise that one dares to investigate at peril. The story knows itself better than the writer does at some point, knows what’s being said before the writer figures out how to say it. There’s a word in German, Sehnsucht. No English equivalent, which is often the case. It means the longing for something that cannot be expressed, or inconsolable longing. There’s a word in Welsh, hwyl, for which we also have no match. Again, it is longing, a longing of the spirit. I just think many of my figures seek something that cannot be found."

- Joy Williams

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

"When I’m at work I’m highly superstitious. My own superstition has to do with the voice in which the story comes out. I believe that every story is attended by its own sprite, whose voice we embody when we tell the tale, and that we tell it more successfully if we approach the sprite with a certain degree of respect and courtesy. These sprites are both old and young, male and female, sentimental and cynical, sceptical and credulous, and so on, and what’s more, they’re completely amoral: like the air-spirits who helped Strong Hans escape from the cave, the story-sprites are willing to serve whoever has the ring, whoever is telling the tale. To the accusation that this is nonsense, that all you need to tell a story is a human imagination, I reply, ‘Of course, and this is the way my imagination works.' "

 - Philip Pullman

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev, page design, pages 14-15

"It's a big question -- where do writers get their ideas, where do artists get their visions, where do musicians get their music? It's bound to have a big answer. Or a whole lot of them. One of my favorite answers is this: Somebody asked Willie Nelson how he thought up his tunes, and he said, 'The air is full of tunes, I just reach up and pick one.' For a fiction writer -- a storyteller -- the world is full of stories, and when story is there, it's there; you just reach up and pick it.

"Then you have to be able to tell it to yourself.

The Wild Swans by Anton Lomaev"First you have to be able to wait. To wait in silence. Listen for the tune, the vision, the story. Not grabbing, not pushing, just waiting, listening, being ready for it when it comes. This is an act of trust. Trust in yourself, trust in the world. The artist says, 'The world will give me what I need and I will be able to use it rightly.'

"Readiness -- not grabbiness, not greed -- readiness: willingness to hear, to listen carefully, to see clearly and accurately -- to let the words be right. Not almost right. Right. To know how to make something out of the vision; that's what practice is for. Because being ready doesn't mean just sitting around, even if it looks like that's what most writers do; artists practice their art continually, and writing happens to involve a lot of sitting. Scales and finger exercises, pencil sketches, endless unfinished and rejected stories. The artist who practices knows the difference between practice and performance, and the essential connection between them. The gift of those seemingly wasted hours and years is patience andf readiness; a good ear, a keen eye, a skilled hand, a rich vocabulary and grammar. The gift of practice to the artist is mastery, or a word I like better, 'craft.'

"With those tools, those instruments, with that hard-earned mastery, that craftiness, you do your best to let the 'idea' -- the tune, the vision, the story -- come through clear and undistorted. Clear of ineptitude, awkwardness, amateurishness; undistorted by convention, fashion, opinion.

"This is a very radical job, dealing with the ideas you get if you are an artist and take your job seriously, this shaping a vision into the medium of words. It's what I like to do best in the world, and what I like to talk about when I talk about writing. I could happily go on and on about it. But I'm trying to talk about where the vision, the stuff you work on, the 'idea,' comes from, so:

"The air is full of tunes. A piece of rock is full of statues. The earth is full of visions. The world is full of stories.

"As an artist, you trust that."

- Ursula K. Le Guin

The Wild Swans illustrated by Anton Lomaev

The beautiful fairy tale paintings in this post are by the Belarusian artist Anton Lomaev. He was born in Vitebsk in 1971, studied at the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, and has been illustrating children's books and designing book cover art since the 1990s.

The paintings above come from Lomaev's edition of "The Wild Swans" by Hans Christian Andersen.  Below is his cover art for the Russian edition of East by Edith Pattou (a wonderful novel based on the Scandinavian fairy tale"East of the Sun, West of the Moon"), and a painting of his desk. Please visit Anton Lomaev's website to see more of his magical art.

Anton Lomaev's cover art for East by Edith Pattou

"And telling a story, I suppose, is like winding a skein of spun yarn -- you sometimes lose track of the beginning."  - Edith Pattou

Anton Lomaev's desk

The Joy Williams quote is from "The Art of Fiction No. 223" (Paris Review, Summer 2014). The Philip Pullman quote is from his introduction to Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm (Viking, 2012). The passage by Ursula K. Le Guin is from her essay "Where Do You Get Your Ideas From," publishing in The World Split Open: A Literary Arts Reader (Tin House Books, 2014). The Edith Pattou quote is from her novel East (Harcourt Children's Books, 2003). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.

Further reading (related to The Wild Swans fairy tale): Swan's Wing, Swan Maiden & Crane Wives, and When Stories Take Flight: The Folklore of Birds.


Wild stories

Wild companion

Winged deer tapestry

The Bumblehill studio

While the world of human affairs goes on its noisy, alarming way, I return again and again to the woods and hills behind my studio. To moss. To mud. To the dark, damp mulch of leaves carpeting the forest floor. To the strength of granite and the swift ways of water. To the prickly beauty of holly and gorse, and the slow, silent patience of seed and bulb. To the resurrection of bracken, grown so tall that the trails are half-hidden beneath it.

I keep leaving my desk, Tilly close at my heels, crossing from the imaginary landscapes of writing or reading to a world I can touch, and smell, and taste: to the old stone wall at the edge of the treeline, and pathways trodden by wild ponies and sheep. To streams filled with rain, bogs thick with mud, brambles that snag my skirts and scratch my shins. To discomfort. To pain. To surprise. To joy. To the things that are real.

An occupational hazard for the solitary writer is to live in the realm of the mind alone (or the shadowlands of the Internet), and not in the body, the senses, the wild rhythms of the local groundscape we each inhabit, whether rural or urban. For many of us in the fantasy field, the wild world is the very place that we seek to conjure and enter through stories and paintings -- and so we must not neglect our relationship with the elemental wild around us. In our kind of work, "magic" is not a metaphor for gaining power, control, or authority, but for our numinous connection with natural world, and our nonhuman neighhbors. It is wild work. It is soul work. And we need wild stories right now, more than ever.

Wild words

"I have a sense," writes Kate Bernheimer "that a proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing human awareness of separation from the wild and natural world. In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering, and beauty are shared. Those drawn to fairy tales, perhaps, wish for a world that 'might live forever.' My work as a preservationist of fairy tales is entwined with all kinds of extinction."

Edmund Dulac illustration

P1370113

"Writing," says Sylvia Linsteadt, "is my way into the heart of the world -- its wildness, its strange magic, its beauty, its terrors, its sadness, its joy. Metaphor (a favorite of mine) is an act of shape-shifting, of remembering that each thing is hitched to the next in the great cyclical transformation of energy, from sun to seed to doe to cougar and back to worm; the line between ourselves and the wild world is thin indeed. Writing (thick with metaphor) is the means through which I can praise the wild mystery of this world, and also explore its unseen realms -- the realms inside the hearts of bears and granite stones and buckeye trees; the lands just the other side of the moon and the fog, the lives of men and women long ago or just around the corner. If I were buckeye tree, then writing would be the buckeyes that fruit at the ends of my limbs come late August. In other words, writing is the thing made in me from all the waters and winds and soils and stories that come through my five senses (or six), and it feels very inevitable, like the buckeyes at the end of summer.

Kay Nielsen illustration

HJ Owen illustration

"Also, I have always been an avid reader," Sylvia continues; "especially as a child I devoured books that told of magical worlds and lands, lady-knights and healers, the everyday peasant life of Old Europe (especially Scotland & Ireland), talking animals, caravans of camel nomads, druids, long adventures on horseback. Such books literally shaped and changed my life. They informed the way I see the world today -- as a place much more mysterious and full of wild magics than we tend to believe, where everything is alive and everything speaks. So I write because writing is even better than reading in the sense that you really get to go to those places in your imagination, and give them to other people. The stories we tell ourselves and each other form the world in which we live."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Our task, as David Abram sees is, "is that of taking up the written word, with all its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of things themselves -- the the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have a rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit the coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valley and swamps."

 "Storytellers ought not to be too tame," Ben Okri agrees. "They ought to be wild creatures who function adequately in society.  They are best in disguise.  If they lose all their wildness, they cannot give us the truest joys."

Edmund Dulac illustration

Jay Griffiths adds: "What is wild cannot be bought or sold, borrowed or copied. It is. Unmistakeable, unforgettable, unshamable, elemental as earth and ice, water, fire and air, a quitessence, pure spirit, resolving into no contituents. Don't waste your wildness: it is precious and necessary."

Adrienne Segur illustration

Illustration by Adrienne Segur

Wild stories

Words: The passage by Sylvia Linsteadt is from an interview by Asia Sular (Woolgathering & Wildcrafting, Sept. 2014), which I recommend reading in full. Kate Bernheimer's quote is from the Introduction to her anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin, 2010); Ben Okri's quote is from his essay collection A Way of Being Free (W&N, 1997);  Jay Griffith's quote is from Wild: An Elemental Journey (Penguin, 2007). All three books are recommded. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: My quiet hillside studio on a rainy day -- with the hound, works-in-progress, old fairy tale books, and bits of the wild slipping in from the woods.


Telling Our Stories: in honour of Toni Morrison, 1931-2019

Briar Rose (collage) by T Windling

“I believe in all human societies there is a desire to love and be loved, to experience the full fierceness of human emotion, and to make a measure of the sacred part of one's life. Wherever I've traveled -- Kenya, Chile, Australia, Japan -- I've found the most dependable way to preserve these possibilities is to be reminded of them in stories. Stories do not give instruction, they do not explain how to love a companion or how to find God. They offer, instead, patterns of sound and association, of event and image. Suspended as listeners and readers in these patterns, we might reimagine our lives."  

- Barry Lopez (About This Life)

"I come from a long line of tellers: mesemondok, old Hungarian women who tell while sitting on wooden chairs with their plastic pocketbooks on their laps, their knees apart, their skirts touching the ground...and cuentistas, old Latina women who stand, robust of breast, hips wide, and cry out the story ranchera style. Both clans storytell in the plain voice of women who have lived blood and babies, bread and bones. For them, story is a medicine which strengthens and arights the individual and the community."  

- Clarissa Pinkola Estés (Women Who Run With the Wolves)

Donkeyskin (collage) by T Windling

"Make up a story.

"Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald. Or if, with the reticence of a surgeon's hands, your words suture only the places where blood might flow. We know you can never do it properly -- once and for all. Passion is never enough; neither is skill. But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don't tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief's wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear's caul."

- Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize lecture, 1993)

In the Meadow (collage) by T Windling


On listening to stories other than our own

Woods

From Barry Lopez's new book Horizon (which is breathtakingly good):

"I read daily about the many threats to human life -- chemical, political, biological, and economic. Much of this trouble, I believe, has been caused by the determination of some to define a human cultural world apart from the nonhuman world, or by people's attempts to overrun, streamline, or dismiss the world as simply a warehouse for materials, or mere scenery.

"It is here, with these attempts to separate the fate of the human world from that of the nonhuman world that we come face-to-face with a biological reality that halts us in our tracks: nature will be fine without us. Our question is no longer how to exploit the natural world for human comfort and gain, but how we can cooperate with one another to ensure we will someday have a fitting, not a dominating, place in it.

"What cataclysm, I often wonder, or better, what act of imagination will it finally require, for us to be able to speak meaningfully with one another about our cutural fate and about our shared biological fate?

Woods 2

Woods 3

"As time grows short, the necessity to listen attentively to foundational stories other than our own becomes imperative. As I've encountered other human cultures over time, especially those radically different from my own, each one has seemed to me both deep and difficult to comprehend, not 'exotic' or 'primitive.' Many cultures are still distinguished today by wisdoms not associated with modern technologies but grounded, instead, in an acute awareness of human foibles, of the traps people tend to set for themselves as the enter the ancient labyrinth of hubris or blindly pursue the appeasement of their appetities.

Woods 4

Woods 6

"It is nearly impossible for wise people in any culture to plumb the depths of their own metaphysical assumptions, out of which they have fashioned a world view. It is also difficult to listen closely while some other people's guiding stories unfold, or to separate successfully the literal from the figurative in those stories, the fact from the metaphor. And yet if we persist in believing that we alone, living in whatever culture we're from, are right, and that we therefore have no need to listen to anyone else's stories, stories that we often can't quite understand and so are unwilling to discuss, we endanger ourselves. If we remain fearful of human diversity, our potential to evolve into the very thing we most fear -- to become our own fatal nemisis -- only increases.

"The desire to known ourselves better, to understand especially the source and the nature of our dread, looms before us now like a specter in a half-lit world, a weird dawn breaking over a half-lit scene of carnage: unbreathable air, human diasporas, the Sixth Extinction, ungovernable political mobs.

Woods 7

Woods 8

"In the wisdom of the desert, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, considering the moral obtuseness of the conquistadores, writes, 'In subjugating primitive worlds they only imposed on them, with the force of cannons, their own confusion and their own alienation.' If this colonizing impulse in our heritage is still with us, a need to dominate, must we continue to support it? Must we go on to deferring to tyrants, oligarchs, and sociopathic narcissists? The French poet, diplomat, and Nobel laureate Alexis Léger, in his epic poem Anabase, asks where the troubled world is to find its real protectors, warriors so dedicated to protecting the welfare of their communities that they can be depended upon 'to watch the rivers for the approach of their enemies, even on their wedding nights.'

"Where, today, can the voices of such guardians be heard over the raucous din in support of economic growth?

Woods 9

Woods 10

"In her poem 'Kindness,' the Palestinian American poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes that to learn the kindness required to ameliorate cruelty and injustice the real world presents us with,

Leafyou must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans...

"In which national parliaments and legislatures today can we find deliberations characterized by such a measure of humility? In which congresses might questions of ethical responsibility be successfully raised for discussion? In which Western nations does a determination to address the mental, spiritual, and physical health of children override indifference to their fate? Or are these questions now thought to be anachronistic, questions no longer relevant to our situation?

Woods 11

"...Most anyone today can imagine the biblical horseman of the Apocalyse deployed on the horizon, pick out one and characterize him. Anyone, too, facing this frightening horizon, might opt to turn away, decide instead to become lost in beauty, or choose to remain walled off from the world in electronic distractions, or select catatonic isolation within the fortress of the self. But one can choose, as well, to step into the treacherous void between oneself and the confounding world, and there be staggered by the breadth, the intricacy, the possibilities of that world, accepting its requirement for death but working to lessen the degree of cruelty and to increase the reach of justice in every corner.

Woods 12

"For many years this kind of heroic effort -- essential to learn to cooperate with strangers -- has been calling to modern people. I've wondered, watching economically powerful nations scrambling in the world's remote corners for the last large deposits of copper, iron, bauxite, and other ores, or reading about the failure of the once-dependable ocean fisheries, or about cynical corporate maneuvering to secure the last reservoirs of potable water, whether an unprecedented openness to other ways of understanding this disaster is not, today, humanity's only lifeline. Whether cooperation with strangers is not now our Grail."

Woods 13

Woods 14

Horizon by Barry Lopez

Words: The passages quoted above are from Horizon by Barry Lopez (Knopf and The Bodley Head, 2019). The  poem in the picture captions, "Kindness" by Yusef Komunyakaa, is from Poetry 181, No. 5 (March 2003). All rights reserved by the authors. In addition to Horizon, which is a wonderful read, I recommend my friend Alan Weisman's fine book The World Without Us

Related reading (Barry Lopez): The art of hope Bowing to the birds, Children in the woods, and Three Writers on Aging.


On serving the story

The Dreaming

In "Magic Carpets," an essay on writing fiction for children, Philip Pullman discusses "the various sorts of responsibility incumbent on an author: to himself and his family, to language, to his audience, to truth, and to his story itself." He has good things to say about about all of these aspects of storytelling, but I'm particularly intrigued by the last responsibility:

A shy bird boy"It's one that every storyteller has to acknowledge, and it's a responsibility that trumps every other. It's a responsibility to the story itself. I first became conscious of this when I noticed that I'd developed the habit of hunching my shoulders to protect my work from prying eyes. There are various equivalents of the hunched shoulder and encircling arm: if we're working on the computer, for example, we tend to keep a lot of empty space at the foot of the piece, so that if anyone comes into the room we can immediately press that key that takes us to the end of the file, and show nothing but a blank screen. We're protecting it. There's something fragile there, something fugitive, which shows itself only to us, because it trusts us to maintain it in this half-resolved, half-unformed condition without exposing it to the harsh light of someone else's scrutiny, because a stranger's gaze would either make it flee altogether or fix it for good in a state that might not be what it wanted to become.

"So we have a protective responsibility: the role of a guardian, almost a parent. It feels as if the story -- before it's even taken the form of words, before it has any characters or incidents clearly revealed, when it's just a thought, just the most evanescent little wisp of a thing -- as if it's just come to us and knocked at our door, or just been left on our doorstep. If course we have to look after it. What else can we do?"

The strayaway child

I was struck by this because it precisely describes the writing process for me. I can't bear to talk too much about what I am writing while the story is forming, or to have others read the manuscript until a late stage in the drafting process. In this, I am unusual among many of my writing colleagues and friends, who companionably share manuscripts back and forth, who form writing groups for support and critique, and who love nothing better then to chew over troublesome plot points, characters, and details of craft together.

"What kind of special snowflake am I," I have wondered, "that the very idea of such kind, collegial attention makes me shudder to my bones?" Reading Pullman, I am reassured I am not alone in my solitary habits. It's not me, as a writer, who is timid and fragile, but the stories themselves: the ones who knock at my door are shy little things, and must be coaxed onto the page gently, gently.

Little ones from the wood

Invisible Friends

Pullman continues:

"What I seem to be saying here, rather against my will, is that stories come from somewhere else. It's hard to rationalise this, because I don't believe in a somewhere else; there ain't no elsewhere, is what I believe. Here is all there is. It certainly feels as if the story comes to me, but perhaps it comes from me, from my unconscious mind -- I just don't know; and it wouldn't make any difference to the responsibility either way. I still have to look after it. I still have to protect it from interference while it becomes sure of itself and settles on the form it wants.

Bunny Friends"Yes, it wants. It knows very firmly what it wants to be, even though it isn't very articulate yet. It will go easily in this direction and very firmly resist going in that, but I won't know why; I just have to shrug and say, "OK -- you're the boss.' And this is the point where responsibility takes the form of service. Not servitude; not shameful toil mercilessly exacted; but service, freely and fairly entered into. This service is a voluntary and honourable thing: when I say I am the servant of the story, I say it with pride.

"And as servant, I have to do what a good servant should. I have to be ready to attend to my work at regular hours. I have to anticipate where the story wants to go, and find out what can make the progress easier -- by doing research, that is to say: by spending time in libraries, by going to talk to people, by finding things out. I have to keep myself sober during working hours; I have to stay in good health. I have to avoid taking on too many other engagements: no man can serve two masters. I have to keep the story's counsel: there are secrets between us, and it would be the grossest breach of confidence to give them away....And I have to prepared for a certain wilfulness and eccentricity in my employer -- all the classic master-and-servant stories, after all, depict the master as the crazy one who's blown here and there by the winds of impulse or passion, and the servant as the matter-of-fact anchor of common sense; and I have too much regard for the classic stories to go against a pattern as successful as that. So, as I say, I have to expect a degree of craziness in the story.

" 'No, master! Those are windmills, not giants!'

" 'Windmills? Nonsense -- they're giants, I tell you! But don't worry -- I'll deal with them.'

" 'As you say, master -- giants they are, by all means.'

"No matter how foolish it seems, the story knows best."

Tell Us a Story

Then Pullman makes an important point:

"And finally, as the faithful servant, I have to know when to let the story out of my hands; but I have to be very careful about the other hands I put it into. My stories have always been lucky in their editors -- or perhaps, since I'm claiming responsibility here, they've been lucky they had me to guide them to the right ones. I suppose one's last and most responsible act as the servant of the story is to know when one can do no more, and when it's time to admit someone else's eyes might see it more clearly. To become so grand that you refuse to let your work be edited -- and we can all think of a few writers who got to that point -- is to be a bad servant and not a good one."

Passing our stories on to an editor is part of the job of being a writer -- but for me, this is at a late stage in the process, once my shivering little waif of a tale has been warmed and fed; once I've cleaned the mud and muck from its face, combed the leaves and moss from its hair, buttoned its jacket and tied its shoes. Only then is it ready to face the wide world outside my studio door.

Fairy Tales

Pullman concludes his list of authorial responsibilities by adding:

"...I don't want anyone to think that that responsibility is all there is to it. It would be a burdensome life, if the only relationship we had with our work was one of duty and care. The fact is that I love my work. The is no joy comparable to the thrill that accompanies a new idea, one that we know is full of promise and possibility -- unless it's the joy that comes when, after a long period of reflection and bafflement, of frustration and difficulty, we suddenly see the way through to the solution; or the delight when one of our characters says something far too witty for us to have thought of ourselves; or the slow, steady pleasure that comes from the regular accumulation of pages written; or the honest satisfaction that rewards work well done -- a turn in the story deftly handled, a passage of dialogue that reveals character as well as advancing the story, a pattern of imagery that unobtrusively echoes and clarifies the theme of the whole book.

"These joys are profound and long-lasting. And there is joy too in responsibility itself -- in the knowledge that what we're doing on earth, while we live, is being done to the best of our ability, and in the light of everything we know about what is good and true. Art, whatever kind of art it is, is like the mysterious music described in the words of the greatest writer of all, the 'sound and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.' To bear the responsibility of giving delight and hurting not is one of the greatest privileges a human being can have, and I ask nothing more than the chance to go on being responsible for it till the end of my days."

Daemon Voice by Philip Pullman

She held perfectly still.

Words: The passages above are from "Magic Carpets: A Writer's Responsibilies" by Philip Pullman, presented as a talk at The Society of Authors' Childens's Writers & Illustrators Conference (2002), and reprinted in Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling (David Fickling Books, 2017). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The drawings and paintings of shy and whimsical creatures of the green Devon hills are mine. All rights reserved.